Category Archives: Travel Photography

Night Photography in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guilin

Last fall I spent a couple weeks traveling in China. This trip had been on my wife Anita’s bucket list for quite some time and she was gracious enough to take me along. Obviously we did all the touristy stuff like the Great Wall, Forbidden City, the Bund and so on. However, we have learned over the years to also get away from the mega bus tours and go out on our own …especially at night when most tourists are snug back in their beds and skylines beckon to the photographer.

Beijing

We hired a local guide, Lucy, with Discover Beijing Tours for our exploration of the capital city after dark, Lucy supplied her own car and driver who knew how to navigate the confusing Beijing traffic patterns. Plus she knew where to park and had some inspired opinions on creative angles and perspectives.

Night Photography in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guilin
Access to Tiananmen Square was restricted the night we visited so I had to grab this shot through the window of our moving car. Back at home and two hours of tweaking with Photoshop and I end up with this image!

At the nearly empty Olympic Village, we parked and walked to some of the highlights. I’m glad we were able to visit at night because later in the week we got to stop by again during daylight and there was NO comparison…this is a venue that is dramatically more impressive after the sun sets!

Bejing's Olympic Bird's Nest Night Photography in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guilin
Beijing’s famous Bird’s Nest in Olympic Park. It’s inspired architecture is neat to see during the day but it will blow your mind at night!
Night Photography in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guilin
The Olympic Tower was completed just a few years ago and is pretty impressive

Some of the modern architecture in Beijing and China’s other big cities is truly over the top. All of it is expertly illuminated after sundown. The futuristic National Center for the Performing Arts shown below is an example:

Night Photography in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guilin
Not surpisingly, residents of Bejing call this the “egg.” After dark, its color gradually shifts from red, to blue to silver….quite mesmorizing

Another example was the CATV building which is just plain head-scratching:

Night Photography in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guilin
This long exposure captured the light trails from Bejing’s insane traffic.

“The Place” is a huge upscale area that features the world’s largest LCD panel mounted to the bottom of a vast covered walkway between two shopping malls. A local cop saw me struggling to find a good spot and on his own he actually stopped traffic and urged me to set up my tripod in the street where I could fit this entire sceen into my image. Customer service at its best.

Night Photography in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guilin
The Place…bring your wide angle lens!

We also had the chance to stroll down Yandai Xie Street, a traditional marketplace in the old part of town. It’s narrow streets were packed with vendors hawking every conceivable type of merchandise and food.

Night Photography in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guilin
How about a crunchy late night snack…anyone?!
Night Photography in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guilin
Everywhere I turned there were exotic details to admire
Night Photography in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guilin
Lake Houhai is at the end of Yandai Xie Street. This facinating area is absolutely gorgeous at night!

Beijing is a huge spawling city that is home to over 21 million people (almost equal to the entire population of Australia!). Obviously a single night wasn’t adequate to hit even the highlights, but that’s all we had because we were off the next day south to Hangzhou.

Hangzhou

Hangzhou is home to the stunning West Lake area which I would have loved to have photographed at night. But we only had one evening in town and our tour group was locked into a visit to the “Songcheng Romance Park”: Yes, it’s a cheezy theme park (but hey, we live in Orlando…gotta check out the competition!)

Songcheng Romance Park Night Photography in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guilin
Not exactly subtle, or old but perhaps photogenic?

The park did have a great live stage show. “The Songcheng Romance Show” has been seen by over 6 million folks. It may have been a bit challenging to follow the story, but visually, it was like catnip for this photographer:

Night Photography in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guilin
Incredible lighting and stage effects made it a photographic feast
Night Photography in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guilin
Sometimes I thought the show was created with photographers in mind. It featured little vignettes like the one above that were oddly emotional and visually captivating.

Shanghai

The next morning we were off to the world’s 2nd largest city: Shanghai. I’d been long impressed by night images taken of its skyline and Anita and booked a river cruise to see for ourself:

Shangai at night
WOW…just WOW! This view did NOT disappoint.

On one side of the boat, the futuristic vision of 21st century Shanghai slaps you silly in the face, but directly opposite on the other bank of the Huangpu River the dignified and elegant 19th century city facade known as the Bund calms your soul: Talk about a study in contrast!

Night Photography in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guilin
The classical Bund waterfront
Night Photography in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guilin
180 degree panorama off the side of the boat
Night Photography in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guilin
Back to the dock after the cruise…

Guilin

Our last stop in China was even further south and far inland. In fact, we flew over Wuhan, which has been in the news lately because of the Coronavirus outbreak.

Guilin (pronounced Kway-leen) isn’t usually included in a typical itinerary for visitors to China…unless you are a photographer who wants to capture some of the world’s most dramatic landscapes.

There is a hill (Xiangong) along a bend of the Li River that features a killer vista of the dramatic limestone karst hills. I was excited even though I had to get up at 4am to make the drive there (oddly enough, Anita did not fully share my enthusiasm). I climbed the (hundreds of) steps, scouted my location, set up my gear, took my test shots and then patiently waited for the sunrise.

Which. Never. Came.

It was totally overcast. Never even a a peak of the sun. Oh well, I did capture some long exposures and the intense clouds did provide images with lots of atmosphere when converted to black and white:

Night Photography in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guilin
A long exposure before dawn of Xiangong Hill near Yangshu.  
Night Photography in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guilin
Sunrise images here can be absolutely breathtaking…hopefully I’ll be back one day for a second try.

That night, we walked to dinner. Steps from the entrance of our hotel in downdown Guilin is a pedestrian area that winds along part of the old city’s medieval-era moat. The landscape lighting is amazing and it creates a picturesque and relaxing area for a stroll. It is also a target-rich environment for photographers.

Night Photography in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guilin
On Shanhu Lake’s shore, twin pagodas, the Sun and Moon, light up the sky at night
Night Photography in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guilin
 The Tang Dynasty Ancient South Gate (aka Gu’nanmen)
Night Photography in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guilin
A ‘Moon” bridge…
Night Photography in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guilin
I never did figure out exactly what this was…but I liked it!

Anita patiently allowed me to get my photographic fix and then gently pushed me along to a restaurant for our delayed dinner.

All too soon, we had to return home.

I’ll have more to come about our trip to China…even some daytime shots. But, my days are blissfully full and life is busy, so it may be awhile!

Cheers,

Jeff

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Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

When I sit down to write a blog recapping a photo trip, the process is pretty simple.  I think back about what was truly amazing or unique about the location and just start there.   And that is precisely why I am having such trouble starting this blog about Iceland.  

Iceland has auroras, ice caves, waterfalls, glaciers, geysers, icebergs, sea stacks and much, much more.  Exploring and photographing any one of these treasures would have been plenty for a single trip…or blog.    Trying to condense this trip into a detailed and comprehensive article that wasn’t too lengthy was not possible, no matter how I agonized over it.

So, I am going to wuss-out and instead create a series of shorter blogs, each one dealing with a solitary topic, like auroras or ice caves.  But before that, I’m going to pop out this brief recap  and include some of my favorite images.

Any visit to Iceland starts and ends in the capital, Reykjavik.  

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

The ‘Sun Voyager’ or Sólfar is a large stainless steel sculpture on Reykjavik’s shoreline. The artist, Jón Gunnar Árnason intended it to symbolize the promise of new, undiscovered territory.  It is a truly elegant monument and I think it would sing a saga to any photographer with an ear to listen.

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

Hallgrímskirkja is the largest church in Iceland. Guðjón Samúelsson designed it to resemble the basalt columns that are such an iconic feature of many of Iceland’s waterfalls.  It is truly dramatic and visible from nearly any spot in Reykjavik.

The international airport is near Reykjavík.  The city is small, modern, clean and great for pedestrians…and photographers.  Don’t get me wrong, I certainly came to Iceland to photograph the landscapes but Reykjavik had plenty to keep my camera busy while I was in town. 

Which was a good thing, because Reykjavik isn’t cheap.  Heck, nothing in Iceland is cheap except hot water and electricity (thanks to Iceland’s abundant geothermal energy and hydro-electric resources).  So I avoided the souvenir shops and expensive restaurants while exploring the town on foot eating Cliff Bars and clicking away with my Nikon.    

Reykjavik’s concert hall, the Harpa, features an illuminated colored glass facade that changes colors and moves. I found it wonderfully reminiscent of the Northern Lights.

 After checking out Reykjavik and adapting to the 6 hour time difference, I took the next few days to visit the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and the nearby ‘Golden Circle’.  The weather was rainy and overcast but the incredible landscape still yielded dramatic black and white images.

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

Kirkjufellsfoss (the waterfall) and Kirkjufells (the mountain) are two of Iceland’s most iconic images. I had only about ten minutes to shoot here, so I was under the gun to get my shots.

The rain got worse as the trip progressed, but that only made the rugged coastline that much more alive to the camera:

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

A long exposure HDR allowed me to show the Djupalonnsanaur sea stacks with all its violent grace.

Although I hadn’t seen the sun since I arrived, things turned around that night.  I was checking the sky every couple of hours (heck, who needs sleep) and about 4 am the skies cleared and the aurora made an appearance.  I had nearly two hours of uninterrupted bliss photographing the aurora and nearby mountains reflecting in a shallow lake until the dawn washed it all away.

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

“Reflected Grace” The Aurora Borealis dancing above the mountains on the Snaefellsnes peninsula.

    

Tired, but happy, I headed down the coast a bit to check out the seals at Ytri Tunga Beach.

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

“Perfect Pinnipedia Plank” Young seal going through his morning stretching exercises at Ytri Tunga Beach.

One of the more interesting waterfalls I saw was Hraunfossar.  The water here doesn’t fall over the top of the rock cliff…it actually seeps out through the porous volcanic rock face.  Never saw that before…

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

A long exposure zoomed detail shot of Hraunfossar

I returned to Reykjavik and the next morning joined the ‘Arctic Exposure‘ photo tour that would consume the next ten days. 

My quarter million dollar ride! Other tourists would actually walk up and photograph our truck when we stopped for gas…

Although I usually prefer to explore and photograph on my own, many of Iceland’s photographic icons are simply not reachable via rental cars during the winter.  Plus, being a Floridian, my experience driving on snow and ice is sorely suspect.  I was reassured that this tour featured a $250,000 Mercedes  ‘monster-truck’ that had been especially built for the off-road winter extremes in Iceland.  Plus, our guide Aron was not only a talented photographer but also an expert winter driver who had once spent a year managing the vehicle fleet for a BBC production in the Antarctic. 

Iceland isn’t a huge country…about the size of the state of Georgia.  The ‘Ring Road’ is a two-lane asphalt highway that circles the perimeter of the island.  Our tour drove the entire road counterclockwise and we indulged in many side trips to remote spots that Aron had found over the years.  

Seljalandsfoss was one of our first stops.  Set in a huge natural amphitheater, it is one of the country’s natural treasures.  The downside is that it isn’t that far from Reykjavik and is easily accessible…which means that it is packed with tourists.  Even during the winter.  Worse, it has been photographed to death and I was frankly a bit intimidated contemplating how to find a perspective that wasn’t identical to the thousands of others on the internet.

 

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

“Perspective” My effort to create a unique image of popular Seljalandsfoss.

There are a number of sea stacks and arches around the island.  That evening we photographed Dyrhólaey, a gigantic, 400 foot black lava arch.  The western face of the arch stubbornly stayed shaded by clouds for the hour we waited for sunset.  Then, once, and for less than a minute, a glimmer of sunlight weakly illuminated up the arch.  It was just enough…

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

Atlantic Puffins nest on Dyrhólaey’s cliff sides during summer. They were far away enjoying warmer weather during my visit!

When my brother Greg, kayaked around Iceland in 2007, he had a bit of fun and paddled right through this arch. His 33 day circumnavigation is still a record… and my brother is still a beast.

The next morning, we visited the basalt sea stacks of Reynisdrangar, which are framed by one of the black sand beaches that are so characteristic of this volcanic island.  

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

Legend has it that the stacks were created when two trolls dragged a three-masted ship to the shore but when illuminated by the sunrise it was transformed into these wicked needles of rock.

The glaciers in southern Iceland conceal numerous Ice Caves, which had long been on my bucket list.  It was worth every second of the wait.  

Remember the James Bond ‘Gun Barrel’ graphics at the start of the movies?

 

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

I think Aron has James Bond beat cold (Pun intended)!   The Anaconda Ice Cave was gargantuan….we could have driven our truck into it.  I’ll do a full blog packed with Ice Cave photos later this year.

Another famous spot for photographers is Diamond Beach.  Its claim to fame is that Europe’s largest glacier (Vatnajökul) calves into the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon and the ice is swept out to sea.  Then the Atlantic tosses them right back up on the black sands of Diamond beach.  It was an incredible sight at sunrise… 

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

I could have spent days at Diamond Beach. The blue ice on black sand with silky currents of water illuminated under an Arctic sunrise were inspiring. Another blog to follow on this dreamlike location!

Iceland can also give Patagonia a run for the money when it comes to awesome mountains.  Vestra Horn was particularly impressive. Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap Vesta Horn

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

We were lucky to capture Vestra Horn during an inspired sunrise that reflected its profile in the water running off the shallow ocean flats at its base.

 

As we continued east and then north we stopped seeing crowds of tourists.  Or towns.  Or cars.  Or much of anything other than the thin ribbon of the Ring Road and some bleakly magnificent landscapes.  Iceland has a population of only 350,000 (vs. 18 million in Florida).  And with nearly a third of the population living in Reykjavik,  people tend to be few and far between in the rest of the country. 

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

This isn’t a shot that will end up in my portfolio, but it does accurately show how bleak, desolate and uninhabited much of Iceland can be once you get away from Reykjavik and the south coast.

The weather started to change as well.  Aron had told us that it had been unusually warm and rainy but by the time we reached the little outpost of Mývatn (population 200), that started to change.  Snow began to fall and the temperature started to drop.  A lot.  Our coldest night would peg out at -22F (-30 Celsius).  As I recall, we spent a good part of that night photographing the Northern Lights at Godafoss. 

Despite numerous layers of high-tech cold weather clothing, my fingers and toes certainly felt the cold…at least until they went numb and didn’t feel anything at all.  Oh, and let me tell you about the time I was peering into my viewfinder setting up a shot.  I close one eye when I use my viewfinder..right?  Well, when I tried to open it, I found that a bit of moisture on my eyelashes had frozen and stuck it to my cheek.  Ever rip off a band-aid?  Well, eyelashes grow back and I’ll have that photo forever…but, just saying…

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

Godafoss (Waterfall of the Gods) The coldest night of my life…but one the most beautiful.

We stayed in the Mývatn area for three days.  One of my favorite locations was a pond punctured by a petite island crowned with a stunted tree that some enterprising Icelandic photo tour owner must have planted.

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

A picture perfect reflection

Our monster truck came in handy in the north, brutalizing its way to locations that would have been impossible with a regular vehicle.   One ‘normal’ passenger van tried following the path we forged to Dettifoss but ended up breaking its differential.  Those poor folks had a long, cold (and expensive ) wait for a tow truck.

One of my favorite waterfalls was Aldeygarfoss.  Surrounded by basalt columns, it is blessed with a remote and regal setting in the Icelandic highlands.  We spent a few hours there waiting for sunset.  It was truly magical and I doubt I’ll live long enough to forget its grandeur.

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

Aldeygarfoss glows in pastels after sunset.

In addition to the landscape, I was also impressed with the native Icelandic horses.  The island is home to 80,000 of them (nearly one per every four residents).  I learned “never to call them ponies…they are real horses, just petite.”  Supposedly descended from the Mongolian warhorses ridden by the legendary hordes of Genghis Khan, the Icelandic horse has been pure-bred for a thousand years.  To maintain that legacy, horses cannot be imported into Iceland and if one is shipped off the island, it cannot ever return.  

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap Icelandic Horse Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap Horse

One other tidbit is that the Icelandic horse is the only one in the world that has a 5th gate.  I don’t really know what that means other than it gives the rider a really smooth ride.  Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap Beer on horseTo prove that point, one of the owners at a local stable galloped with a glass of beer in her hand. Yes, she spilled a drop or two, but the glass was practically full at the end of a full lap.  I was impressed…and relieved that no beer was wasted, especially since beer has only been legal in Iceland since 1989.

All too soon, we were back in Reykjavik.  The ten of us on the tour had certainly bonded by the end of the trip.  Tens of thousands of photos, hundreds of miles and many bottles of wine undoubtedly contributed to that camaraderieIt was sad to break up the team and head home.

But I will be returning to Iceland.  There is so much more to explore and it is all on a compact, modern island where the people are polite, punctual and speak English.  Plus they drive on the right side of the road which will come in handy when I return in a summer or two and rent a car of my own.

Hope you enjoyed this brief recap of my trip.  If you have a preference on the subject of my next Icelandic blog (Ice Caves, Auroras, Waterfalls, Diamond Beach…) pop me a note and vote on your favorite!

Take care,
Jeff

PS:  I’m heading out to Arches NP and the Bisti Badlands next month.  Hopefully I’ll be able to squeeze out another blog before then.

PSS:  I unreservedly recommend Arctic Exposure.  Yes, the tours are expensive (but like I said, everything is costly in Iceland)…but they are competitively priced when you consider other similar photo tours.  Plus, the level of expertise Aron provided was above and beyond what I have usually experienced on other photo tours.  His experience allowed him to adjust our itinerary ‘on the fly’ depending on the weather conditions.  I like to think that I’m pretty good in quickly scouting a location and figuring out the best perspectives for my shots, but the fact is I wouldn’t have come home with the number of killer shots that I did if Aron hadn’t been our guide…and that is very high praise coming from me.  Also, if such things are important to you, the food and lodging were outstanding. 

Finally, please know that I (unfortunately) get no kickbacks or discounts from Arctic Exposure…although I would be certainly willing to consider bribes in the future…

 

Check out my other blogs about Iceland’s Ice Caves and the Northern Lights!

 

 

Also posted in Iceland, Photo Tips and Guides Tagged , , , |

New Russian Portfolio Just Published

The Winter Palace

A few months back I wrote a blog about some of the night photography I had a chance to do in Russia earlier this year.  Afterwards, I had a lot of requests to see some daytime shots as well.   So I’ve just published a new portfolio on my website that includes both day and night images from the land of the Tsars.  Check it out by clicking here.

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